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Tue 17 Jun 2008 06:13 PM

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Hamas, Israel agree truce

Warring sides accept ceasefire in and around Gaza Strip from Thursday, Egyptian mediators says.

Israel and the Islamist Hamas movement have agreed to begin a Gaza truce in two days, Egyptian mediators said on Tuesday after months of negotiations to try to halt bloodshed in and around the impoverished territory.

"We have succeeded in securing the agreement of the two sides to a complete cessation of hostilities and military action from Thursday," Egyptian foreign ministry spokesman Hossam Zaki told newswire AFP in Cairo.

"This is a reciprocal and simultaneous period of calm," Zaki added. "Egypt will continue its efforts to deal with the current situation in order to consolidate the calm and move on to the implementation of other parts of the proposals."

Zaki did not spell out the other parts of the truce package but an Egyptian official said that a key element was the reopening of the Rafah border crossing between Egypt and Gaza, the territory's only one that bypasses Israel, a core demand of Hamas.

The official said the crossing could only be reopened once an agreement had been reached between the Islamist group and secular Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas's whose forces were ousted from Gaza in June last year.

Abbas insists that he alone has the right to control the external borders of the Palestinian territories and up until June last year the crossing operated under an agreement between the Palestinian leadership, Israel and the European Union.

Egypt's announcement came after a series of air strikes in Gaza that left six people dead, including a senior fighter with an Al-Qaeda linked group, according to medics.

Hamas, which has ruled Gaza for a year, said it would respect the truce timetable but warned that it remained free to respond to any attacks on its militants before the ceasefire comes into force.

"Hamas will adhere to the timetable which was set by Egypt but it is our right to respond to any Israeli aggression before its implementation," said spokesman Fawzi Barhum.

"The discussions in Cairo have not been concluded but they are positive," he told AFP, adding: "We are close to announcing agreement on a truce."

Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev would not confirm an agreement, insisting that the Jewish state required "not just words but actions".

"If indeed there is a cessation of terrorist attacks, if indeed there is an end to the military build-up in Gaza, if indeed there is movement on the issue of Gilad Shalit, this indeed will be a new reality."

The last was a reference to an Israeli soldier held by Hamas since his capture in a deadly cross-border raid by Gaza-based militants two years ago.

Amos Gilad, a top aide to Defence Minister Ehud Barak, was heading to Cairo for talks with Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman aimed at finalising the truce agreement, Israeli army radio said.

Egypt has been mediating indirect talks between Israel and the main Palestinian armed factions for months in a bid to secure a truce and lift a year-old Israeli blockade of the aid-dependent territory.

Israel has said it is willing to give the truce a chance, but stressed it was also readying its troops for a possible ground offensive aimed at ousting Hamas should the agreement fail.

And a top commander warned ahead of the Egyptian announcement that any ceasefire would have its limitations.

"If a truce is achieved with Hamas and the terrorist groups in the Gaza Strip, it would be temporary and fragile," said General Yossi Baidatz, who heads the military intelligence research division.

Hamas, whose charter calls for the destruction of the Jewish state, said the proposed truce would include the lifting of the blockade Israel imposed on Gaza and the opening of border crossings.

Israel has said a truce must also include a halt to weapons smuggling from Egypt.

As Egypt urged the Palestinian factions to strike a deal among themselves that would clear the way for the reopening of the Rafah crossing, a delegation from Abbas's Fatah movement travelled to Gaza in the first such trip since Hamas's bloody takeover.

It remained unclear whether the delegation would meet Hamas officials.

"We will meet with any active power in this country and with any party that wants to meet with us to discuss any issue," Hakmat Zeid, heading the delegation, told reporters in Gaza City.

Relations began to thaw earlier this month when Abbas called for national dialogue without insisting that Hamas first return Gaza to his control.

The European Union and the United States continue to blacklist Hamas as a terrorist organisation despite its 2006 victory in parliamentary elections and have refused to deal with any Palestinian Authority that includes the group.